Pa. state commission: Bucks County school district can keep controversial nickname

A mural of the Neshaminy High School mascot. (Eugene Sonn/WHYY)

A mural of the Neshaminy High School mascot. (Eugene Sonn/WHYY)

A yearslong fight over a controversial school mascot in Bucks County may finally be over.

The Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission has ruled that Neshaminy School District can continue calling some of its sports teams the “Redskins,” but must dump any logos and imagery “that negatively stereotype Native Americans.”

Under a 6-1 decision reached Monday, the district can keep the half-century old nickname as long as it ensures that “students do not form the idea that is acceptable to stereotype any group.” This despite the fact that the commissioners conceded that “Redskins” is a racial slur for Native Americans, and commission staff agree with that assessment.

“At the end of the day … Redskins will always be a racial slur and a derogatory term. But I’m gonna use it as an educational opportunity to work with this district,” said commission executive director Chad Dion Lassiter.

The district can appeal the decision to Commonwealth Court.

In a statement, a spokesperson said the district’s legal counsel “is reviewing the information from the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission that was released today and will advise the Neshaminy School Board regarding this matter. We have no additional comment at this time.”

Craig Ginsburg, a lawyer for the district, declined comment.

Stephen Pirritano, who sits on Neshaminy’s School Board of Directors, said Monday that the “district has never done anything to be embarrassed about.”

“We do not use caricatures. We do not have a live mascot. Redskin and the imagery that goes with it simply supports our school team,” he said.

The logo for Neshaminy High School’s basketball team is a profile of a Native American warrior, the baseball team’s hats feature a tomahawk, and the high school’s football team is nicknamed the “Skins.” The word also appears on the team’s helmets.

The commission’s two-page order is light on details. It doesn’t specify which of logos and imagery must go, only that the district has 90 days to file a report “with respect to whether the District has removed all negative stereotypical images or logos of Native Americans.”

The report also doesn’t give the district any parameters that speak to how it should  teach students about negative stereotyping.

The ruling gives the district six months to report on the “actions it has taken to comply with the educational requirements” of the order. After that, it must report annually on how it is complying.

“Even though it was shocking for them not to say ‘it’s a racial slur. We’re going to do away with it,’ Neshaminy has a lot of hoops to jump through to live up to this ruling,”said former Neshaminy parent Donna Fann-Boyle.

Monday’s ruling comes nearly a year after a weeklong public hearing that pitted parents, former students and teachers against school administrators and district experts.

The commission, which sued the district in 2015, argued the word “Redskins” is a derogatory and racist name for Native Americans, and that it creates a “hostile educational environment” for district students.

The district, home to more than 9,400 students, has denied the commission’s allegations in the past, calling them “unfounded.” The sentiment echoes how most members of the Neshaminy community feel about the term. They maintain the nickname honors the area’s Native American history.

More than 80% of Bucks County residents are white. Less than 1% are American Indian, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The controversy dates back to 2013, when Fann-Boyle filed a complaint with the commission, hoping it would move the district to get rid of the mascot.

The same year, a group of student newspaper editors at The Playwickian announced the high school newspaper would no longer publish the words “Redskins” in its pages because they deemed the word racially insensitive to Native Americans.

The decision sparked a battle with school officials that made national headlines.

The paper’s faculty advisor was suspended for two days without pay for backing the student journalists. The paper’s editor-in-chief was suspended from the top post for a month.

In response to the student-led ban, Neshaminy’s school board passed a policy that barred editors from removing “Redskins” from op-eds but allowed them to keep it out of news articles.

Though Fann-Boyle withdrew her complaint due to community backlash, the commission’s staff sued the district two years later, after determining her complaint was valid.

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